Just as I was arriving at the Institute for the Future of the Mind at Oxford university my phone told me it had picked up voicemail from the home phone; five messages recorded at regular intervals. As I climbed the steps up to the building I listened: 'Clare...Clare...' The voice was confused, creaky and ghostlike. Each time this voice was followed by a pause and the receiver would go down, a few mutterings would follow and then the line would go dead. I knew who it was, of course.
On the train I had been reading about the brain in Susan Greenfield's book THE PRIVATE LIFE OF THE BRAIN. I had got to a place that described how important potassium and sodium ions are in making sure the electrical signal travels along the neuron - how they are pumped in and out and this is one of the things that makes the whole thing work. I had found this piece of information reassuring because if a person's potassium level had fallen then this would surely cause much confusion - and no doubt things would return to normal as soon as that potassium was regained.
After making a few phone calls and ensuring that all was well, at least for the time being, I went on with my day. I met Dr Martin Westwell, the deputy director of the Institute for the Future of the Mind, who seemed to put aside most of his week almost entirely for my benefit, which I much appreciated. We went for coffee at the top of the building which has a balcony and penthouse-like views and talked intensively about my work and his. One thing he said which interested me particularly was that they had found that scanned the brains of people who were being kept alive in a coma and found that talk of activities such as tennis caused activity in the same parts of the brain as people who were fully functional.
This haunted me through the rest of the day and night. I thought about a remarkable book I'd read a few years ago called THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY written by Jean-Dominique Bauby - dictated very laboriously by a code involving the blinking of his eye since the author was suffering from 'locked-in syndrome' as a consequence of a stroke. Then I thought about the dying - how I'd heard that hearing was the last sense to go and have wondered many times how anyone knew - and Martin told me about the beheaded - how for a few seconds they would continue to live and remain conscious until the blood drained from the brain...
In earlier times there was a constant fear of being buried alive - there were known to be cases of people who were thought to be dead and yet 'came alive again' before burial. Maybe there are worse things than going mad. Maybe remaining sane is sometimes a more fearsome penalty.